Lesley Sachs has been arrested five times.
Four times for wearing a prayer shawl at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, one of the holiest places in the Jewish faith, and once for smuggling a Torah scroll into the sacred site.
Sachs is the executive director of Women of the Wall, a multi-denominational Jewish feminist group based in Israel that has been fighting for the past 29 years for the rights of women to worship freely at the Western Wall, the only remnant of the ancient Second Temple of Jerusalem destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.
For decades, ultra-Orthodox authorities have barred women from participating in religious rituals traditionally reserved for men, such as wearing prayer shawls and phylacteries — black leather boxes containing verses of Jewish scripture — and reading aloud from the Torah.
Although women are allowed to pray at the wall, they must do so silently behind a gender-segregated partition. Young women also are prohibited from celebrating their bat mitzvah at the site.
Since 1988, the Women of the Wall group has prayed openly at the wall, donning prayer shawls and reading from the Torah, in defiance of Orthodox rule. In return, they've been heckled, harassed and entwined in a decades-long legal battle for equal rights. Sachs will visit Charleston's Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue on Wednesday, April 19 to discuss the group's long-standing struggle.
“This is like many other battles, feminist battles. It is a battle first and foremost about control, who controls the heart of Jewish people," Sachs said in a phone interview with The Post and Courier from her home in Israel. "What women can't do, what they can do, how they can do it, where they can do it."
The Women of the Wall's fight for egalitarian and pluralistic worship is emblematic of a larger frustration among non-Orthodox, reform Jews with the powerful Orthodox rabbinate, Israel's supreme religious authority which oversees the Western Wall, said Shari Rubin, an assistant professor of Jewish studies at the College of Charleston.
"At that point there has been several decades of feminist agitation within reform and conservative Judaism," Rubin said. "Within the reform movement, women's equality is almost absolute at this point in the U.S., and this I think has as much to do with tensions with the Israeli rabbinate as it does with the status of women."
But the women activists have made progress. In April 2013, following the arrests of five women, including Sachs, for disturbing the peace at the wall, a Jerusalem judge ruled in favor of them and ordered their release. Sachs called it a "precedent-setting verdict."
In January 2016, the Israeli government agreed to create a third, mixed-gender section of the Wall where non-Orthodox Jews can pray. But that plan still hasn't come to fruition.
"What we’re demanding to do is not against Jewish law," she added. "The Western Wall is not an ultra-Orthodox synagogue. It is a national holy site that belongs to all the Jewish people and most of the Jewish people — the Jewish people all over the world, those in Israel and in diaspora — are not ultra-Orthodox."
Sachs said the controversy over the Western Wall is an issue where liberal American Jews can wield their influence and apply pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on behalf of Jewish women in Israel.
"Netanyahu cares more about what you think and what you support than he does about Women of the Wall," she said. "You you have tremendous ability to make change here, to make Israel a better place."